During #TeacherAppreciationWeek I wrote a lengthy Twitter thread about five teachers that have had a significant, positive impact on my life. Thanks to ThreadReaderApp, I can present the whole thread here in quasi-essay form:

For #TeacherAppreciationWeek, I’m going to write every day in this thread about a teacher that had a meaningful impact on my life.

Monday: Fred Holden

Today I want to write about Fred Holden. He was one of my English teachers at duPont Manual in the late 1980s. Unlike most of the teachers I’d had in the past, he treated us like young adults, not like children.

Mr. Holden gave us space to think. He was one of the first teachers I ever had who would ask us a question and then just let it hang there in silence while we chewed it over.

After we read Walden and Civil Disobedience, he took the whole class on a camping trip where we discussed Thoreau’s ideas, journaled about nature, learned about constellations, and sat around a bonfire.

He was one of the few teachers I’d had up to that point who seemed to take ideas seriously AND believed that we were also capable of taking ideas seriously.

I ran into Mr. Holden twenty years later around the time I was starting my teaching career. Not only did he immediately remember me, he was able to recall a satirical play I had written for his class. I was so flattered. I told him he was one of my teaching role models.

As far as I know, he’s currently retired from teaching. He grows food on his Floyds Fork farm and sells it at the Douglass Loop farmer’s market. I need to go by there and say hello.

Tuesday: Janet Parker

For Tuesday’s contribution to my #TeacherAppreciationWeek thread, I’m going to write about someone who taught me during one of my worst school years: fifth grade.

My fifth grade teacher was one of the worst I’ve ever had, but I’ll waste no time on her. Instead, I want to talk about the teacher who made fifth grade thoroughly enjoyable and helped me learn valuable lifelong skills.

I started to get severe, stress-induced migraines in fifth grade. To make a very long story mercifully short, part of the solution was to pull me out of school once per week so I could receive individual instruction in computer programming.

My mother would pick me up at school and take me to the U of L education building, where I took hour-long lessons from Dr. Janet Parker, a college professor with the patience of a saint.

Dr. Parker was very interested in computers and education. Google Scholar shows several articles she wrote in the mid to late 80s on that topic.

She taught me how to create all kinds of programs in BASIC: drawing programs, math programs, puzzles, word games, “choose your own adventure” style text-based games, and much more.

Going to Dr. Parker’s office was an important escape for me. It was like a doorway to the future that I was able to glimpse once a week. It put me on a lifelong path of technological proficiency.

I wasn’t just learning about computer programming, though. I was learning about organization, responsibility, math, design, concision, and so much more.

There were no worksheets. There was no busywork. There were no lectures about how I would need this in the future or how it would be important for college applications or career paths. I was learning this because I wanted to learn it.

And my mistakes were my own. If I got frustrated and gave up, it didn’t mean a bad grade; it just meant that the program that I was writing — the one I WANTED to write — wouldn’t get finished. That’s all. But that was important. This was an early lesson in intrinsic motivation.

I’m not a computer programmer today, but the facility and familiarity I gained with computers in Dr. Parker’s office have stuck with me ever since. And I learned that learning can be an exciting, meaningful journey — as long as the learner is as engaged and empowered as I was.

This lesson carries forth into my journalism instruction. My journalism students have free rein to pursue topics about which they are passionate. And if they’re not sure what they’re passionate about, I’ll try to help them figure that out.

Wednesday: Dee Hawkins

For Wednesday of #TeacherAppreciationWeek I want to talk about someone who was never my teacher, but who still inspired my pedagogy and praxis: Dee Hawkins.

Dee Hawkins was an English teacher at Central High School in the late 1990s. She was at the center of a controversy involving books by E. Lynn Harris.

Hawkins had a classroom library of about 200 books, and among them were a few novels by Harris. The books were not required reading, but students were able to borrow them and take them home.

The books by Harris, which had a few scenes describing sex between men, became controversial when a parent objected to their presence in Hawkins’ classroom.

In the late ’90s, Louisville had a lot of LGBT activism. The Fairness Campaign was fighting for a “fairness ordinance” that would outlaw discrimination on the basis of sexual identity. And of course the local Religious Right was highly active too.

The Religious Right folks, including Frank Simon, came after Dee Hawkins with a vengeance. They threatened Hawkins with violence and tried to get her fired. The CJ’s Veda Morgan covered the story:


Hawkins stood strong. She defended her decision to include all kinds of books in her classroom library. She argued on behalf of her students’ right to read books they could enjoy and relate to. And she patiently, firmly argued against homophobia.

I was inspired by Hawkins’ strength and resolve, but I was also impressed with her classroom library and the idea that students engage best with reading that they select and can relate to. Students who can make choices about their education make the best learners.

There were a lot of things that influenced me to become a teacher, but seeing Hawkins calmly defend herself and her students in front of an auditorium full of angry protesters was definitely a key factor.

Hawkins and her students ended up winning the battle, by the way. A JCPS committee ruled that the books could stay and then placed the matter into the hands of Central’s SBDM — who also ruled in Hawkins’ favor.


A few years later, when I had my own classroom at Shawnee, I had my own classroom library as part of the Ramp-Up program. I made sure that I had books that my students would want to read, including E. Lynn Harris books, “The Coldest Winter Ever,” “A Child Called It,” and so on.

I’ve had some stressful times as a teacher, but I’ve never had to deal with death threats and people trying to get me fired. Dee Hawkins taught me that these battles are worth fighting and our students are worth fighting for.

Thursday: David Lavery

My #TeacherAppreciationWeek thread continues today with appreciation of a professor in Tennessee who taught me (and many other people) that close analysis can be applied to any text, not just Serious Literature and Great Art and Classical Music.

In the early ’90s I was working on my bachelor’s degree in communications at Memphis State University (now known as University of Memphis). I was looking for easy COMM credits to finish my degree, so I enrolled in a course about science fiction film.

David Lavery taught the hell out of that course. Yes, we watched movies in class, but we also discussed them. We read and wrote essays about them. We argued about them.

We talked about author’s intent, the role of the audience, separating art from artist, postmodernism, symbolism, imagery, the difference between homage and ripoff, and so much more.

For my final essay in the class, I wrote about the ways in which John Carpenter’s “The Thing” reflected America’s anxieties about AIDS and male intimacy. Writing about that movie helped me watch it (and other movies) in a whole new way.

Professor Lavery helped me discover a whole new genre of writing (film criticism) and a whole new way of watching movies and TV shows. He reinforced the idea that writing reflectively and analytically about a text could reveal layers and layers of additional meaning.

On the last day of the course, Professor Lavery took me aside and praised me for my essay about “The Thing.” He gave me a copy of Baudrillard’s “America” and recommended that I read more postmodernist authors.

Unfortunately, Professor Lavery passed away in 2016. After his stint in Memphis, he taught at MTSU and became widely hailed as an expert in TV shows like Buffy, Game of Thrones, Battlestar Galactica, The X-Files, Twin Peaks, and many more.

What Professor Lavery had done for me, he had also done for so many other people.

Lavery organized academic conferences about Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He wrote a whole book about Joss Whedon. He spent his life saying “This stuff is actually meaningful and worth our time, in many ways.”

He didn’t just study and write about popular culture, though. He was also fascinated with British author Owen Barfield, to the point where he produced and directed an award-winning film about him.

I wish I could have taken more of Professor Lavery’s courses, attended his conferences, and had more discussions with him about movies, politics, popular culture, and everything else. Rest in peace, Professor.

Friday: Diana Donsky

For Friday’s #TeacherAppreciationWeek thread, I’m going to honor Florence Diana Donsky, who was my senior English teacher at duPont Manual.

Ms. Donsky was a witty, fierce, passionate teacher who did not suffer fools gladly. She loved teaching, loved language, loved literature and poetry — and she imbued us with that same love.

She made us memorize Chaucer’s intro to the Canterbury Tales in the original Middle English. “Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / the droghte of March hath perced to the roote …” And she made sure we understood the ribald nature of the Miller’s Tale.

Ms. Donsky loved learning for its own sake and she didn’t mind making literate jokes and witty puns that students were not always quick to catch. In a time of anti-intellectualism, Donsky never failed to heap contempt upon those who scorned arts, literature, and academia.

She passed away in 2003 and was inducted into Manual’s Hall of Fame in 2017. I visited her grave yesterday. Rest in peace, Ms. Donsky.

When China’s press does it, it’s propaganda. When our press does it, it’s heartwarming human-interest storytelling.

The New York Times published a story about the propaganda value of “Frost Boy,” a Chinese lad whose nearly 3-mile trek to school in bitter winter weather left him with frozen hair and rosy cheeks.

As Adam Johnson pointed out back in August — and as Bailey Stuber discussed on Episode 9 of the podcast — U.S. media outlets love stories like these but usually fail to pursue the bigger questions that these stories raise. Johnson put it this way:

A healthy press would take these anecdotes of “can do” spirit and ask bigger questions, like why are these people forced into such absurd hardship? Who benefits from skyrocketing college costs? Why does the public transit in this person’s city not have subsidies for the poor? Why aren’t employers forced to offer time off for catastrophic accidents? But time and again, the media mindlessly tells the bootstrap human interest story, never questioning the underlying system at work.

But when this kind of story goes viral in China, the New York Times has no trouble immediately discerning that there are in fact two contradictory aspects to this story: first, the propaganda value of this “symbol of the raw determination of rural residents” (as the NYT reporter put it), and second, the “plight of the tens of millions of so-called left-behind children who grow up in impoverished rural areas largely on their own after their parents leave to work in big cities” (again in the words of the NYT reporter).

We don’t get this kind of nuance when it comes to the U.S. versions of these stories. As Johnson and Stuber pointed out, we get two versions of this story: the original version, where some impoverished worker walks ten miles uphill in the snow both ways to work every day, and then the follow-up where the news media congratulates itself for telling this inspiring story by reporting on the groundswell of public support for the impoverished worker, who (thanks to a GoFundMe campaign or a generous anonymous donor) can now afford a car to get to work.

Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but it would be nice if the news operations that run these types of “perseverance porn” (Johnson’s term) stories read the NYT’s China example and realized that their own puff pieces about these diligent, obedient individuals who gratefully schlep to their grueling, underpaid jobs every day are actually part of a larger narrative serving a specific political perspective and propaganda purpose.

State by state comparison of factors correlated (or not) with assessment scores

On a whim, I decided to compare school performance data with other measurable characteristics.

I chose two sets of achievement data: the Education Week Quality Counts State Report Cards Map (K-12 achievement), and the Nation’s Report Card for 8th grade reading and math.

I looked for correlation with multiple data sets: state-by-state rankings of charter school laws from a pro-charter perspective (source), state-by-state union strength rankings from a conservative think tank (source), per-student expenditures in each state according to the NEA (source; look for table H-11), percentage of people in each state who identify as Democrats (since people often blame educational dysfunction on Democrats)(source); and finally, median income per state according to the U.S. Census (source).

Median income had the strongest correlation with test scores, with r values of 0.5 and 0.38. The other factors had no appreciable correlation at all.

If you’d rather not scroll around in the little embed window above, here’s a direct link to the spreadsheet.

Passive voice and euphemism in coverage of #KameronPrescott case

Several days before the end of the first semester, my students and I talked about the ways in which passive voice and euphemism are deployed by PR-savvy spokespeople to deflect responsibility from their clients.

A horrifying tragedy right before Christmas provided a real-life example.

Let’s start with the headline on the website of the San Antonio Express-News: “2 dead after BCSO deputy-involved shooting, manhunt through San Antonio suburb.”

“Deputy-involved shooting,” like its more common cousin “officer-involved shooting,” is an Orwellian euphemism which should never be used by any serious journalist. As I’ve previously explained, the phrase originated with the LAPD’s Officer Involved Shooting Unit and appears in no journalism style guides.

The story’s lead and second graf are as follows:

A 6-year-old boy was fatally shot when Bexar County sheriff’s deputies opened fire on a woman at a Schertz mobile home park after a lengthy manhunt Thursday.

The woman — a wanted felon and a suspect in a car theft — also was killed by the gunfire at the Pecan Grove Manufactured Home Community, located off FM 78 on the banks of Cibolo Creek.

I’ve added boldface to highlight the egregious use of passive voice. It would be very easy to rewrite these sentences in active voice:

Bexar County sheriff’s deputies killed two people — a 6-year-old boy and a wanted felon — at a Schertz mobile home park after a lengthy manhunt Thursday.

Deputies shot the boy and the felon, who was also a suspect in a car theft, at the Pecan Grove Manufactured Home Community, located off FM 78 on the banks of Cibolo Creek.

There. Why is that so difficult? Why do so many journalists reporting on police shootings use this tortured, forced language?

My main theory is that many of these reporters are basically rewriting official police statements. This type of responsibility-deflecting jargon is frequently found in official statements from government employees. For example, watch this video that highlights the phrase “mistakes were made.”

There is no legitimate journalistic reason to use the phrase “officer-involved shooting.” There is no reason to use the passive voice in a sentence like “A teenager was shot and killed. An officer from the Ferguson Police Department was involved in the shooting.” There is no reason for journalists to use any government agency’s deflecting, bloodless, PR jargon.

Journalists, your job is to inform, explain, clarify, and “serve as an independent monitor of power.” Your job is not to rewrite government press releases. Everybody at the San Antonio Express-News who put their fingers on this story before publication ought to be ashamed of themselves.

Three local TV stations putting trash on Facebook.

As Gay Adelmann pointed out, three local Louisville stations posted their own versions of the exact same story today.

All three of these are “news” reports about a Texas woman’s Facebook post. Yes, three-fourths of our local stations felt the need to report a story about a random woman’s social media thoughts.

But it’s not just our local stations that saw fit to share this “story.” If you type “texas woman cotton complaint” into Google, you find that dozens and dozens of local “news” stations and websites have done the same thing.

Adelmann called the story both “click bait” and “race bait,” and I think her assessment is accurate. All you have to do is briefly skim the comment sewers on any of these sites to see that the articles are deliberate attempts to provoke a certain demographic that is highly likely to watch local TV news — older, less educated conservatives.

So what does this incident tell us about local TV news outlets and their behavior on social media?

  1. Their performance on social media has nothing to do with newsworthiness and everything to do with clicks, shares, likes, interactions, and so forth. (Another perfect case study for this: WLKY’s awful Twitter feed.)
  2. They are more than willing to stoke racial tensions and encourage the worst types of internet commenters by posting pointless, insignificant stories like this.
  3. They are imitators, not innovators. Look how many “news” outlets posted this story on their websites. They saw it go viral for other organizations and they wanted some of those eyeballs.

I should add that this doesn’t just happen with non-news stories that appeal to conservatives — it also happens with liberals. For just one example, take a look at this On the Media report about liberals’ susceptibility to Russia conspiracy theories.

If you encounter stories like these on social media, you should do the following:

  1. Fact-check the story. Was the story told on multiple news outlets? Was it confirmed by outlets that are ideologically different from (or even opposed to) the original source? Was it confirmed by multiple name-brand, known-quantity outlets, or by a bunch of websites you’ve never heard of?
  2. Let’s say you’ve fact-checked it and it turns out to be true. Then ask yourself: Why are the news outlets publishing this story? Is it truly newsworthy? Will it have any actual impact on your life? Or is it just reinforcing your own beliefs about the world?
  3. So the story may be true, but it’s not really newsworthy. Now what? It’s easy: Don’t share this crap. Don’t click like, or share, or retweet, or whatever. If possible, hide it in your feed. Not only are you doing yourself a favor, you’re doing the rest of us a favor too — because social media companies use your participation to justify inserting that story into everybody else’s feed. If you don’t participate, that works against those types of stories. So don’t indulge. Move on.

According to NYT, the concept of false balance “masquerades as rational thinking”

Unbelievably, New York Times public editor Liz Spayd declared yesterday that one of the most widespread critiques of mainstream news media doesn’t even qualify as “rational thought,” and is in fact a sneaky partisan attack.

Keep in mind that this is the same newspaper that, two months ago, ran a Paul Krugman column in which Krugman diagnosed false balance (also known as false equivalence, “both sides do it,” or “bothsidesism” as Krugman labels it) as the reason that Donald Trump remains competitive in polls.

Spayd is troubled by charges of “false balance” because the New York Times has run many investigations into Hillary Clinton’s email server scandal, and many readers have written in complaining that the NY Times is, in the words of one reader, “drinking the false equivalency Kool-Aid.”

As someone who receives the print version of the New York Times, I can say that there are, on average, two to three anti-Trump pieces in the paper every day. Frequently they are front page news stories, but there are also anti-Trump editorials and op-eds as well as lengthier articles deeper in the paper. If readers think the NYT treats Trump and Clinton as equally bad choices, then readers are wrong. The New York Times is clearly devoted to reporting all of Trump’s errors, gaffes, stumbles, fumbles and faux pas.

That said, Spayd overreaches in her column when she declares that “the problem with false balance doctrine is that it masquerades as rational thinking.” There is nothing irrational about critiquing the news media’s (at best irritating and at worst grossly irresponsible) tendency to seek balance. After all, that is precisely what journalists are trained to do, and if they do it poorly that means they were trained poorly as novices and edited poorly as professionals.

Furthermore, false balance tends to show up far more often in commentary than in coverage. Here is an excellent case study from the New York Times’ own David Brooks, appearing on NPR’s All Things Considered on Friday:

BROOKS: [Trump] was saying things – as E.J. pointed out – which were just ridiculous – the support for Putin, the oil comment, the idea that we should leave back some core of people and take Iraq’s oil is moral idiocy. First of all, it wouldn’t work. Second of all, it’s called imperialism. And it’s been done and it didn’t work, and it’s an outrage. And it sort of goes under the radar because he’s just ill-informed about what it would actually take.

She was just as bad, but in a different way. She’s certainly well-informed, but she was so ungracious and so unpleasant and so evasive that I think on style points, which matter a lot in these sort of things, she showed just tremendous vulnerability.

So you see, Trump’s ideas and policies are “ridiculous” and “moral idiocy” and an “outrage” and “ill-informed,” but Clinton was “ungracious” and “evasive” so she was “just as bad.”

That’s false equivalency. Krugman correctly diagnoses the problem, Brooks gives us a textbook example of it, and Spayd says that pointing out this journalistic error is irrational and partisan. Go figure.

InsiderLouisville columns

November 20 2014


December 18 2014


February 3 2015


May 5 2015


July 2, 2015


August 4, 2015


March 3, 2016


WFPL Columns

Here is a complete list of all the WFPL columns I published from February 2013 to August 2014.

Book reviews

Here are links to all the reviews I’ve written for the Courier-Journal since 2012.

  • Review of Mario Livio, Brilliant Blunders: From Darwin to Einstein – Colossal Mistakes by Great Scientists That Changed Our Understanding of Life and the Universe. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 13 September 2013.
  • Review of Alex Stone, Fooling Houdini, Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind. (New York: Harper, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 26 July 2013.
  • Review of Elena Passarello, Let Me Clear My Throat: Essays. (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 19 April 2013.
  • Review of Chris Hedges and Joe Sacco, Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt. (New York: Nation Books, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 8 March 2013.
  • Review of Al Smith, Kentucky Cured: Fifty Years in Kentucky Journalism. (Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 4 January 2013.
  • Review of Hedrick Smith, Who Stole the American Dream? (New York: Random House, 2012), in the Courier-Journal, 18 January 2012.
  • Review of Gene Robinson, God Believes in Love: Straight Talk about Gay Marriage. (New York: Vintage, 2013) in the Courier-Journal, 19 October 2012.
  • Review of Tony Wagner, Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World. (New York: Scribner, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 7 September 2012.
  • Review of Dale Carpenter, Flagrant Conduct: The Story of Lawrence v. Texas. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2012) in the Courier-Journal, 29 June 2012.

Local media critics: a rare species

I’ve been really enjoying my gig with WFPL. During his interview with me, Jonathan Bastian asked me where I get my ideas for columns, and I said that it was all too easy: not only do friends and acquaintances regularly suggest ideas, but local news media (especially television) is an endless source of opportunities for media criticism. All I have to do is watch the local news for a few days or peruse their websites.

But I’ve noticed that I seem to be in a class of one. Despite my best Google-fu techniques, I can’t find any other examples of working local media critics in the United States. As Gabe Bullard wrote in the introduction to my first column, “in cities like Louisville, media criticism has gone the way of afternoon papers and Saturday mail.” The Courier-Journal fired its critic Tom Dorsey back in 2008. Perhaps I am the last of my kind?